While watching The Freedom Writers with my teenagers the other night, we bonded over commonality. Dialogue opened up about teachers that have inspired us, teachers that have annoyed us, systems that have failed and people that have prevailed. It was a good cinema choice for a chilly winter evening.
What became so clear in the film is that the teacher was “IN WAY OVER HER HEAD” but realized that there was only one way to bond her students, who were literally at war with each other… help them find commonality.
She inspired her students to embrace their differences and empathize with the common struggle that they each faced. The same holds true for any of us as we try to reach and connect with someone who is hurting, in pain, holding back and angry.
Aren’t these emotions the same for someone who has recently suffered injury, illness, and ultimately loss?
I recall a patient I worked with a few years back who had suffered a stroke and was becoming frustrated by her inability to use her dominant side. She felt absolutely useless without being able to grasp her own fork, hold a pen in her hand, even sign a document legibly.
As I entered her room each day, tears filled her eyes as we went through practices and exercises, partly because of the pain she was in, but also because of the loss that she felt. I struggled to get her engaged because I had no commonality with her. I had never suffered a stroke or lost the ability to use my dominant side, so what could I possibly have in common with her? As it turned out, more than I thought.
Years previous I had suffered a major car accident. I had sustained physical injuries and memory loss that left me slower, less able and dependent on others. .
Sure, our stories were different, but in some ways the same. We could learn from our differences and empathize within a common struggle.
I changed my approach dramatically. Instead of greeting her in her hospital room each afternoon announcing my presence and what “tasks” we were going to work on for the day, I instead became a common ally.
Instead of intruding on her space, hands filled with paperwork, puzzles, fidgets and modified utensils, I placed all of my items in a backpack and entered with both hands filled with mugs of hot chocolate. Immediately I was greeted as an equal and not a clinician prepared to “get a job done!”
Then, instead of sitting across from her with a hospital tray table between us, like a wall of distrust, I sat next to her with the mugs of cocoa in front of us. I was cognizant to sit on her right hand side, forcing her to comfortably use her left hand to lift the mug and enjoy the steamy beverage. What was important at this moment was focusing on her strengths, not her weaknesses.
As we sipped, we chatted. I brought in a small book of images of me after my car accident and I shared with her my story. It was then that she turned to me and said, “So you do understand pain.” As a young punk, working and moving like anyone else my age, it was reasonable for her to assume that I didn’t.
I told her of my days in the hospital, my confusion, my unexplained pain and most important… my dependence on others for help. “Do you really think you can help me?” she asked, “I am just so tired of trying, I will never be who I once was.”
“This is true” I replied. “You will never be who you once were. You have come to a crossroads, and not a pleasant one either. But you have the choice to become more than you were. Your experiences, even the bad ones, build you into a more compassionate person. You now know what it is like to suffer from a stroke and try to rebuild what you have lost. That knowledge is of great value to others who feel alone in this experience.”
From that point forward, our working relationship was never the same. She saw me as a partner that was collaborating with her down her road through therapy and recovery. I had found a way to connect with her outside of the clinical setting that created a powerful force of determination and not one of conflict and agendas.
It was our similarities, not our differences outside the clinical setting, that allowed for connection and self determined engagement on her part. I will never forget her or how far she has come.